Over the centuries since Aesop, animals have come to be seen as belonging to the realm of children; and Aesop’s fables have been subjected to a Victorian kind of simplistic, tacked-on moralizing. But these Classical Greek fables are subversive political critiques from a voice of the lower classes.
It is not certain if Aesop really existed. Greeks in the fifth century bce thought of him as an early sixth-century fabulist. The historian Herodotus claimed Aesop was from Phrygia or Lydia and served as a slave in Samos — the kind that comes from captivity rather than from birth. Legend had it that he was ugly and had a speech impediment, that he was freed by his master Iadmon due to his wit. Legend also says that he was condemned to death for sacrilege, or that a crowd of angry Delphians framed him for theft by planting a gold bowl on him and killed him by throwing him off a cliff into the sea. (Aristophanes in The Wasps alludes to this popular belief.)
Nor is it known to what extent the fables that survive represent his original work, which would have been passed down orally, even though the later playwrights must be referring to a written collection. Latin and Greek collections in the first centuries AD are the first surviving texts, although it seems that some bits were written down around 300 BCE. The often strained, irrelevant, or cheesy morals tacked on were added in the Middle Ages.
For all their entertainment value, the world characterized in the fables is pretty nasty: “the fables are not the pretty purveyors of Victorian morals that we have been led to believe. They are instead savage, coarse, brutal, lacking in all mercy and compassion, and lacking also in any political system other than absolute monarchy. With one exception the kings are tyrants” (Temple xvi). The powerful are predatory. And “Though Aesop clearly sided with the oppressed creatures (i.e., the slaves and the common people), he often showed how the victims victimized themselves through stupidity” (Zipes 281). “Clearly, the narrative strategy of a fable is to demonstrate how the weak and weak-minded will be exploited and destroyed if they do not learn how to fend for themselves” (Zipes 276). “The pungent American description of life, ‘It’s a jungle out there!’ could be taken as the motto of Aesop” (Temple xxiii).
Among the most famous of the fables are “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Hare and the Tortoise,” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.” Lions, wolves, foxes, and jackasses appear frequently.
Most will remember Aesop’s story of “The Ants and the Grasshopper” as a moral tale of an idle grasshopper playing and being generally worthless while the ants toil doggedly, until a season when food is scarce and the grasshopper realizes that the prepared ants had the right attitude about life all along. Take another look at this story. Unlike the cartoony kiddie books that start with the backstory, Aesop confronts us immediately with “a cold, frosty day” and “A grasshopper, half-dead with hunger” who “asked the ants for a morsel to save his life.” I know what you did last summer, remark the ants, somewhat sanctimoniously: “as they laughed and shut their storehouse, ‘since you kept yourself busy by singing all summer, you can do the same by dancing all winter.'” Forget the puritanical cartoon moral; consider this story as a slave parable concerning the workers vs. the privileged! And what are the consequences? Not simply a bitter lesson learned, but apparently starvation!
Aesop. The Complete Fables. Trans. Olivia and Robert Temple. NY: Penguin Books, 1998.
Aesop. Fables. Trans. George Fyler Townsend. http://www.literature.org/authors/aesop/fables/
Aesop’s Fables. Ed. Jack Zipes. NY: Penguin Books, 1992.
Wilkie, Brian, and James Hurt, eds. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1. 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 595-611.